Long-term climate forcing by atmospheric oxygen concentrations

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Science  12 Jun 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6240, pp. 1238-1241
DOI: 10.1126/science.1260670

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Change was in the air

The atmospheric fraction of molecular oxygen gas, O2, currently at 21%, is thought to have varied between around 35 and 15% over the past 500 million years. Because O2 is not a greenhouse gas, often this variability has not been considered in studies of climate change. Poulson and Wright show that indirect effects of oxygen abundance, caused by contributions to atmospheric pressure and mean molecular weight, can affect precipitation and atmospheric humidity (see the Perspective by Peppe and Royer). These effects may thus have produced significant changes in the strength of greenhouse forcing by water vapor, surface air temperatures, and the hydrological cycle in the geological past.

Science, this issue p. 1238; see also p. 1210


The percentage of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere varied between 10% and 35% throughout the Phanerozoic. These changes have been linked to the evolution, radiation, and size of animals but have not been considered to affect climate. We conducted simulations showing that modulation of the partial pressure of oxygen (pO2), as a result of its contribution to atmospheric mass and density, influences the optical depth of the atmosphere. Under low pO2 and a reduced-density atmosphere, shortwave scattering by air molecules and clouds is less frequent, leading to a substantial increase in surface shortwave forcing. Through feedbacks involving latent heat fluxes to the atmosphere and marine stratus clouds, surface shortwave forcing drives increases in atmospheric water vapor and global precipitation, enhances greenhouse forcing, and raises global surface temperature. Our results implicate pO2 as an important factor in climate forcing throughout geologic time.

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